Oil Spill Hearings, Day 2

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On the second day of hearings into the oil spill still pouring crude into the Gulf of Mexico at an alarming rate, lawmakers pointed to a faulty blowout preventer, the safety mechanism that is supposed to seal a well in the event of an accident. In a blistering assessment, Congressman Bart Stupak of the House Energy and Commerce Committee Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, said the BOP had a leaky hydraulic valve, had apparently undergone modifications that made it difficult to operate, and lacked the power to cut through joints in the drill pipe, which it needed to properly seal the valve. Jack Moore, the president and CEO of Cameron, the company which manufactured the device BP America President Lamar McKay has described as “fail-safe,” defended his company’s record and said it was “far too early” to draw conclusions about the cause of the leak.

Commitee chair Henry Waxman, the California Democrat, said that a BP executive told lawmakers earlier this week that negative pressure tests performed on the well hours before the incident revealed irregularities that Halliburton executive Tim Probert — who joined McKay and Transocean president Steve Newman for a second straight day of rigorous questioning — acknowledged should have raised a “red flag.” Waxman blasted the witnesses for operating systems and accident preparation that just a day early they defended as foolproof. “This catastrophe appears to have been caused by a calamitous series of equipment and operational failures,” Waxman said. “If the largest oil and oil service companies in the world had been more careful, 11 lives might have been saved and our coastlines protected.”

While the House hearing yielded far more than yesterday’s theatrical exercise in the Senate, not all of the members on the subcommittee were convinced today’s inquiry was time well spent. From Rep. Michael Burgess’s piece on the Daily Caller website:

While I believe in strong oversight—it is one of the most basic responsibilities of government—I can’t help but wonder if this hearing was called prematurely.

The cause of the explosion is not yet known, as well as other critical information, such as why there was a leak in the pipe and why the blowout preventer did not work. Furthermore, a substantial number of questions remain as to the federal government’s role in the explosion. The Department of Interior’s MMS is responsible for permitting, regulating, and inspecting oil rigs, like the Deepwater Horizon, operating in federal waters. Reports suggest the MMS inspected the rig as recently as April 1, finding no safety violations.

While I look forward to questioning the company executives on their preparation for ultra-deep-water oil exploration, I want to also caution against making sweeping judgments and rushing to unrealistic conclusions about what America’s future energy policies should be, in light of this tragedy. Congress has a long history of overreacting to public tragedies with hasty legislation that—months or years later—we realize has unintended consequences (the latest health care reform law will no doubt fall into this category).

The Congressman’s reservations about the efficacy of these hearings are well-taken, although this one was more substantive than many. But he, like several other lawmakers who voiced continued support for offshore drilling, have a horse in this race. Warning against “snap judgments” is thinly veiled code for opposition to attempts to curtail the industry’s growth.

Meanwhile, in a conference call held for reporters this morning, senior White House officials unveiled details of a legislation package President Obama sent over to Capitol Hill today. The package would retroactively lift the cap on damages — McKay, it should be noted, said during yesterday’s hearing that he expected BP to willingly exceed the $75 million cap anyway — unlock money from the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund to combat the spill, and provide funds to civilians affected by the disaster. According to Carol Browner, assistant to the President for Energy and Climate Change:

The legislation includes unemployment assistance, food and nutrition assistance, and help for those affected by the spill to find work, aid to fisheries and fishermen who have been severely impacted by the spill, funding to increase inspection of fish and seafood to protect the safety of the food we eat, and the establishment of one-stop shops for those in need of aid.

The bill also provides funding for additional inspections and enforcement of safety regulations on other offshore platforms; and comprehensive evaluations of new policies, procedures and actions needed in light of this incident.

By passing this legislation we will clear statutory roadblocks and speed assistance to those impacted by the oil spill, as well as quickly mobilize assistance should the spill become worse and BP is not settling claims quickly. 

While we are asking for additional funds, in some cases, the federal government will not relent in pursuing full compensation for the expenses it has occurred and damage caused by this spill. And the legislation contains provisions to help us recoup those costs.

White House officials said they hoped to get a bill passed sometime in the next few weeks, although they did not say whether they had received specific assurances of support from members of Congress.